Whether you’re a professional athlete, a weekend warrior, or a recreational sporting enthusiast, your off-season training objectives will be basically the same.
With the goal of improving your performance during the regular season, an intelligent off-season regimen will include practices to address these four primary elements:
Resting the body and mind: In order to heal lingering injuries; and come back fully refreshed and rejuvenated.
Refining your skills: That are specific to your chosen sport or fitness activity.
Cross-training: For variety and interest, and to amplify the overall intelligence of your body.
Strengthening your core muscles: To support overall fitness and injury prevention.
This essay will focus primarily on core strengthening, with a secondary emphasis on resting the body-mind by deeply relaxing the nervous system. These two objectives will be accomplished via a sequence of static and dynamic yoga poses.
But first, let’s explore why core strength is such a vital component of athletic success.
Why Core Strength Is Important To Spinal Health
When our core muscles are weak, our posture tends to be poor: e.g. our shoulders slump forward, our hips are unbalanced, or our spinal vertebrae are misaligned.
And poor posture, in turn, predisposes us to lower back and hip pain and injuries. Once we have an injury, we often compensate to avoid the tender area—which contributes to even poorer posture.
The way to reverse this injury-perpetuating cycle is to strengthen and balance our core muscles.
This is even more true for athletes. Any sporting activity that involves twisting, lunging, lifting, leaping and/or forceful lateral movements—depends vitally upon the strength of our core. Basketball, tennis, golf and baseball are just a sampling of the many sports that depend upon core strength.
“Golfing, tennis or other racquet sports, biking, running, swimming, baseball, volleyball, kayaking, rowing and many other athletic activities are powered by a strong core.”
How Core Strength Helps Prevent Joint Injuries
While core strength is associated largely with the health of the pelvis and spinal column, it also helps to prevent knee and ankle injuries. Why is this?
When the spine and pelvis are balanced, this translates into balance for the entire skeletal system. When the bones and muscles of the legs are balanced—and so pressure is being distributed equally left to right, and front to back—then it’s easier for the knee and ankle joints to remain healthy.
So strong core muscles are the foundation not only of good posture and healthy skeletal alignment, but also of overall joint health.
Muscles Of The Core
When we speak of “strengthening the core,” which muscles, exactly, are we talking about? What are the muscles involved in core strength?
It’s mostly abdominal, pelvic floor and spinal muscles that are responsible for our body’s “core strength.”
And these muscles are divided into two types: (1) the stabilizers and (2) the movers. The stabilizing muscles create static strength/stability; while those in the second category generate the dynamic capacity to move in powerful and balanced ways.
1. Stabilizing Core Muscles
Pelvic floor muscles
2. Dynamic Core Muscles
Two Types Of Core Strength Exercises: Static & Dynamic
Mirroring these two categories of core-strength muscles are two kinds of core strengthening exercises:
Those that work on stabilization, i.e. holding your spine and pelvis steady; and
Those that address articulation, i.e. moving through the small joints along the spine.
Likewise, we can evaluate our core strength via the static and the dynamic aspects of our posture. When we sit, stand, or balance on one leg, it’s our static core strength that’s at play. When we engage in activities such as squatting, stepping, and lunging—it’s the dynamic aspect of core strength that allows us to maintain our balanced posture.
The Convenience Of Core Strength Routines
One great thing about core strengthening sequences is that they don’t necessarily require special equipment or a gym membership.
While you can invest in equipment (e.g. kettle-bells, a stability ball, or a wobble-board) designed specifically for core strengthening, it’s just as effective to use the yoga sequence we describe below.
This core strengthening sequence can be done in the convenience and comfort of your home; or in a hotel room on a business trip; or in a backyard gazebo on a warm summer day. All that’s needed is a flat surface in a relatively quiet space, to reap its full benefits.
The Added Benefits Of Restorative Yoga
Along with its core-strengthening benefits, Restorative Yoga deeply calms and relaxes the nervous system, and activates the body’s own self-healing mechanisms.
As mentioned above, an important aspect of off-season training is this sort of deep rest for the body and mind. The calming, soothing, meditative aspects of restorative yoga are perfect for this.
In light of the importance of both stabilizing/static and dynamic actions, the following yoga sequence includes poses for both. It is designed specifically to balance the hips and pelvis, strengthen the core muscles, and protect the lower back.
Yoga Pose Sequence For Core Strengthening
The first three positions relax the nervous system and work on static core strengthening.
1. Abdominal Breathing
Begin by lying on your back, with your knees hinged and soles of the feet flat on the floor. Rest the palms of your hands gently on your belly.
Relax your jaw completely, as though you’re saying “Ahh.” As you breathe, feel how your abdomen rises and falls, beneath your palms, with each inhalation and exhalation. Continue for 30 seconds or so.
Sit upright, either directly on the floor or with your pelvis resting on a cushion. Cross your shins, and draw your right foot to the left, and your left foot to the right—until your knees are quite narrow, about the width of your hips.
Now drop your chin toward your chest, and then let your entire spine curve forward, with your arms and hands extended forward on the floor. Remain for 30-60 seconds, then come back to upright—and repeat with the legs crossed in the other way.
Begin kneeling on all fours. Then walk your hands forward a bit, curl your toes under, and extend your legs—so your shoulders, hips and feet are all in a line (like a long plank). Hold for 30-60 seconds. Alternatively, you can do Plank Pose on your forearms (with fingers interlaced)—if the palms-down version is too intense for your wrists.
Explore Plank Pose variations:
* Rotate 90-degrees, taking all of your weight on your left hand/arm, with your right hand/arm extending upward toward the ceiling. Hold for 30-60 seconds, and then switch sides.
* Rotate another 90-degrees, so that your chest is facing upward, with the hips lifting strongly to maintain the plank shape. Hold for 30-60 seconds.
5. Cat-Cow Movement
From a kneeling position, on all fours, move the spine through its full contraction and extension range of motion.
As you inhale, extend your chin forward while the sitting-bones move up and back—into the “cow” position. Then, with the exhale, tuck your chin toward the tailbone, lifting the spine into the “cat” position. Continue for 30-60 seconds.
6. Bird-Dog Crunches
From kneeling on all fours, extend your right arm forward, and the leg backward. Then tuck your right elbow toward your left knee to “crunch” the abdominal muscles. Then fully extend the leg and arm once again. Repeat this movement ten times, then switch sides.
Also known as the Superman Pose. Lie down on your stomach, with your arms resting on the floor next to your torso. With the backs of your hands pressing into the floor, lift your chest, head and legs. Hold for 30 seconds or so, and then relax back onto the floor.
Now extend your arms along the floor in front of your head. Life your chest, head, arms and legs—and imagine “flying” through the sky like Superman! Hold for 30 seconds, and then relax back to the floor.
This time, lift only your right arm and left leg off of the floor—extending strongly along the diagonal. Hold for 30 seconds, and then switch sides.
Sit on the floor with your legs extending forward. Place your hands on the floor slightly behind your hips. Hinge your knees, lean back into your hands, and float your feet a couple inches off the floor.
Now, engage your abdominal muscles to help balance as you lift your hands also off of the floor, and extend your arms forward. For a fun variation, cross one shin over the other shin, and then switch the cross. Hold for 30-60 seconds.
Keep your knees hinged initially, extending your legs fully only when your core strength makes this comfortable.
9. Dynamic Bridge Pose Variation
Lie down on your back, with your knees hinged and feet drawn toward your pelvis. Cross your right ankle over your left thigh. With the legs in this position, lift your hips up off of the ground; hold for a couple seconds; then release the pelvis back to the ground—and repeat this movement 10 times. Then switch sides.
We’ll finish our sequence with a couple of more static, restful poses.
Sit on the floor, with your pelvis several inches away from a wall. Then release your torso onto the ground as you swing your legs up the wall. Interlace your fingers behind your head.
With your legs resting against the wall, extend strongly through your heels, flexing the ankles. Hold for 30-60 seconds. Then reverse the movement of your feet and ankles, by curling your toes toward your heels (as though you were trying to make a fist with your foot). Hold for 30-60 seconds.
Relax with your legs still up the wall, and your feet in a neutral position, for another 1-2 minutes. Then hinge your knees and roll to the side, to come out of the pose.
Lie on your back, with your knees hinged and feet flat on the floor. Interlace your fingers behind your head, letting the elbows release toward the floor. Now drop your knees wide, so the soles of your feet are touching one another. Allow the knees to release as close to the floor as they do naturally—just letting gravity do the work.
With the legs continuing to relax, actively engage your abdominal muscles, to tuck the pelvis slightly and bring the lumbar spine (lower back) closer to the floor. Hold for 1-2 minutes, and then relax the abdominal muscles, and gently lift your knees to come out of the pose.
Lie down on the ground, with a folded blanket or bolster under your knees. Rest your arms near your sides, with the palms facing either upward or downward. Relax completely, for 5-10 minutes.
Depending on how much time you spend in each position, you can complete these poses in 25-40 minutes. Practice the sequence 3-4 times weekly as part of your off-season training—and enjoy the new strength and vitality of your core!
Questions or comments? Please feel free to contact us.